Interview with Emily Whitaker: author of Ladies of Market Street

Today we bring you an interview with independent comic book author Emily Whitaker. She will be unveiling the story behind her latest creation of Ladies of Market Street, a comic about “crime-fighting hookers”.

The comic is out for sale through amazon and you can find it here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01N37BQ3T

You can also follow Emily on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ee_whit

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So Emily, please tell us… We know you and Trey met at a local art show, and that is how you two managed to pull this off, because of your cool skills were like peanut butter and jam…But how did you come up with something as remarkable as crime fighting hookers?!

This is actually a story that has been with me for years now.  I elude to the fact that the Ladies are also Real-Estate agents.  I get into more of this in the next issue.  But they use the vacant apartments for parties and to entertain their Johns and such things!  And it is that Real-Estate Agency that first gave birth to this strange story.  In 2003 I worked at a Real-Estate agency in New York and all the people were young artists.  We would use the vacant apartments for everything… if we needed a bathroom, a place to change, or some privacy!!!  My roommate was in love with an apartment on the upper east side that wouldn’t sell because they were asking too much.  So every Sunday she would go there to paint because the sun would come through the windows just right!  I wrote our story at first, but it was about that time that I was coming face to face with facts of human trafficking throughout the world and in the city.  The only way I knew to fight it was to write about it.  And to create women who were strong enough and savvy enough to truly fight something so heinous.  So I put pen to paper and got to create these amazing women and  fight the war the only way I knew how.  It is a serious subject, but while I was writing it I felt I wanted to be friends with these women.  And that is the joy I hope my readers have as well.

Continue reading “Interview with Emily Whitaker: author of Ladies of Market Street”

3 ‘Grandes’ of Spanish Comic-book Art: Kenny, Rubin & Calderon

Today I bring you something I think is pretty cool: some golden gems drawn on the spot from some top Spanish comic book artist that are not given the creds they deserve outside of my home country. So this is a tribute to their genius and to Spanish comics. If you know anything about me (if you are reading this it is likely by this stage you know something) it should not come as a surprise that a comic book scholar owns things like this. What is surprising is the art work itself. These pieces have also interesting and sentimental stories attach to them, therefore I’ll give you some details about these stories, – and the comics themselves, of course!!

El Misterio del Capitán Nemo (2012) – Mathieu Gabella & Kenny Ruiz

This is actually the piece that started the collection. I first engaged with Kenny’s work when I was in college, with one of his most renown works to that moment: El Cazador de Rayos (The Lightning Hunter). An incredibly touching story about believe, technology, survival and the making of oneself. But this reinterpretation I guess you can call it of Captain Nemo was just amazing. I loved every single page. Although very much a villain, Nemo is fantastic. There is, I don’t know, I guess slight Jaffaresque essence to him that makes him a lovable evil in a way. So how did this end up with me? Well, my parents were living in Toledo at the time and they happened to go to the Feria del Libro in Madrid (Madrid’s bookfaire), where Kenny was doing some signings. That was like 4 years ago now (2013), so very shortly after the comic was actually released.

Continue reading “3 ‘Grandes’ of Spanish Comic-book Art: Kenny, Rubin & Calderon”

Badaptations – Why Anime and Videogame movies don’t work

If you’ve been a geek as long as I have you’ve seen your fair share of Badaptations. Hell if you’ve been a geek this past year alone you’re probably sick of them!

It’s no secret that as much as we love series, films and videogames that fit outside the norm of mainstream cinema the transition to the silver screen has always been a rough one. Some of the lauded worst-ever films have been attempts of shoving a popular franchise into a two hour box and calling it a Hollywood release. But is it really so hard to get it right? Are there really so many hurdles between source and screen? Well I welcome you to a brief tour of the absolute chaotic maelstrom of getting ANYTHING right in big screen adaptations. Grab your favourite comic and clutch your Nintendo DS because this is going to hurt.

Let’s start big: Why culture isn’t as cultured as we’d like to think.
The impact of cultural difference may not seem to be a challenging adaptation hurdle outside of the obvious points (like language, locations, common phrases) however there are many possibly alienating differences in your common anime and videogames. Consider for a moment that almost all anime (and most videogames) share a cultural fingerprint with Japan- a country where academic intelligence is lionised, eating at a noodle tent is like stopping by Starbucks and every entertainment label worth their salt is churning out teenage starlets by the dozen. It may not stand out in every moment of action but there are plenty of quirks in the daily life of the Land of the rising sun that outside audiences would find unconventional, and are often removed during the adaptation process… or replaced, as was the case with Pokémon swapping the term Rice Ball with ‘Jelly Donuts’.

After all, compared to major American cinema how many films do you see each year that take place entirely in a high school?

Then there are Theological differences- a lot of ideas tend to stem from the subtle cultural touches that come from a society’s deep routed religious history. We tend to be blind to it, about how even the simplest parts of how we see the world are moulded by it; what should and shouldn’t be illegal, the dividing line between sentient and non-sentient objects, our value against the greater universe. Even issues that evolve over time like the justification of prejudice against others. In entertainment these usually come across in the major themes, like someone’s personal struggle or the formation of the world around them. Movies like AKIRA, Spirited Away, Ghost in the Shell and countless more deeply reflect the theological differences that are more prominent in the east, thus making them much more difficult to translate to an audience that doesn’t relate to them. While the transhumanist philosophies in Ghost in the Shell could still be followed by anyone willing to put thought into their movie experience the more niche messages of reincarnation and the organic spirit may be lost. Cultural and theological differences form the greatest obstacle when it comes to making an adaptation of any property from a foreign country- and unfortunately the Hollywood studio system has a putrid record of translating these ideas.

To address the real elephant in the room I would like to call into question the ‘unspoken problem’ with the movie making mentality of Hollywood and the greater system, however that would be untrue. Audiences and critics around the world have been chastising the Hollywood studios for years now about their inherently flawed means of putting stories and adaptations to the silver screen however it has yet to see any results. It would be more accurate to call it a ‘frequently spoken problem’.
That problem being the curse of studio intervention and attempting to fit all properties through what I can only describe as the Hollywood Bottleneck. With dozens, if not hundreds, of critical eyes on a production from its inception and storyboarding right the way through to post-editing it’s no surprise that the amount of meddling can sink a project before its even reached completion. While we’ve seen countless instances of this in our chosen sample group, such as the more recent Assassins Creed movie being heavily cut for ‘simplicity’ and the Ghost in the Shell movie being entirely re-written from its source, adaptations from foreign sources are not the only victims. The most recent attempt at bringing the Fantastic Four superhero troupe to the big screen fell victim to so much studio dissection that its director Josh Trank released a statement about the film being a failure and not “his story” even before the movie premiered.
An unfortunate truth of seeing well-established stories from other mediums pushed through the ringer of Hollywood is that every step of production will see cuts and changes made for localisation, meeting the standards of the general audience, marketability, hitting the broadest possible age demographic, appeasing interests groups etc.
And while I would love to round off the point here and lay the entirety of the blame on the studio system I sadly cannot, though I will place MOST of it on them.

Let’s not forget the hand of the creator is a powerful thing. The person who forges a story or product will do so through their own lens and much of that creator will be seen in the work- this is an art philosophy that has existed for thousands of years. As such we can understand why there are dangers in passing the work of one individual into the care of another for adaptation, but this is not inherently a bad thing. A new set of hands can make changes that put new perspective on the work or allow a different generation to appreciate its message. An example being the translation of book to theatre; such as Gaston Leroux’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’ being passed to Andrew Lloyd Webber for the stage play. However one must be very careful that the artist the work is passed to be appropriate and understands the source material- not something we can say has often happened in nerdy adaptations. In fact some have been downright disasters.

As a case study let’s look at M. Night Shyamalan and his Avatar-less ‘Last Airbender’ movie. While there is no small task in crafting a three-season long show into a few clean cut movies it was not the inclusion of content, or even the changing of details, that destroyed this franchise and left them dead at just one movie out of the proposed three. It was that Shyamalan did not respect the style and voice of the original material and attempted to impose a style on top of it. Anyone familiar with the director’s works can immediately spot the tropes he employs: the colourless environment, the long sequences of slow, heavy sounding dialogue, a reliance on exposition instead of establishing shots or character action. These devices- frequently employed in his other works- starkly contrast the story he’s attempting to adapt and it shows in every single scene. This is a true example of the artist’s voice conflicting with the voice of the original work, something we’ve seen often in similar projects… Rocky Morton and the Super Mario Brothers, James Wong and Dragonball… And anything Uwe Boll touches. Ugh.

This leaves us with the double-edged sword. The curse of production that many would perceive as a great strength and is often used to berate the movie making culture for being unable to turn simple, low-cost source material into a ‘big budget’ worldwide release. The fact of the matter is that movies are a substantial investment of money as well as talent, but that financing is not simply for prettying up the existing material they work with. Everything in film carries a substantial cost, from the crew and actors to the visual and sound design to the intensive editing and promotional side. As a result we often see tens if not hundreds of millions spent on otherwise unimpressive products.

For example the applauded anime movie Dragonball Z Resurrection F cost a respectable 5 million dollars to produce and making ten times that in profit. By comparison the American production Dragonball Evolution film cost a whopping (though cheap by Hollywood standard) 45 million to create. That’s a considerable distance between the two and the simple fact that one is animated and the other live-action has a lot to do with that. We must remember that animation and digital animation are inherently cheaper than all the components that go into a live-action remake, not to mention the gross disregard for spending that goes into a production of this size.
Similarly the Ghost in the Shell (2017) movie cost 110 million but turned only 20 million in sales domestically, barely 50 more than that worldwide. Proof that with such elevated production costs the inevitable drop when a product fails is much, much more devastating. This also applies in the world of video games, which in their native medium are already more expensive to create that animated films or series. Assassin Creed (2007) cost 26 million to create on console and the movie adaptation a decade later cost more than 100 million above even that!

Is this weight of absurd money-spewing something we simply have to live with in film-making? Actually no, one of the highest grossing films of the last few decades was Paranormal Activity which had a price tag of approximately… 11,000. Barely even breaking five digits. But turned a mind blowing 200 million in profits around the world after audiences everywhere requested their movie theatres begin showings all across America and then in Europe.
The moral lesson to learn here is that the greatest profits come from good movies, regardless of how much they are budgeted. The same will be true of the best adaptations from geek culture once it begins to sink in that multi-million dollar botched projects are not the only way to bring an idea to a western audience. Though there is much speculation at this time the Netflix ‘Death Note’ movie is set to air soon and may be able to set a precedent that lower cost endeavours are actually the more profitable means of ‘westernising’ anime, but only time will tell.

Videogames and anime to this day suffer a taboo in the movie-centric western world. This sceptical eye of the public has thankfully been loosening over the past two decades, with videogames now becoming hot property in the world of media sales (though the actual products themselves are still shown very little regard) and despite anime never finding a mainstream hook it has achieved a loyal fanbase in the western audience- enough so to generate large scale conventions of its own.
While these mediums are not universally beloved in the east, with Japan and Korea being major players, they are not stigmatised for their medium or inherent design- with locations such as Akihabra Tokyo even celebrating them as a major source of tourism.
This same dismissal was only recently shared by the comic book industry here in the west, but with the rise of Marvel and the oversaturation of comicbook movies we’ve seen how vastly this has changed. But why are comic books the exception to this terrible curse while anime and games retain their stigma?

The simple answer is; they aren’t. Comics are not an exception; they have simply been present in the popular consciousness long enough and with enough exposure that we have adopted it into the mainstream. This is partly why the explosive success seems so universal in geek culture here, because it’s one of the few elements of nerd-centric entertainment that has appealed to such a wide fanbase and with constant new content from major studios. That isn’t to say it was an overnight success story- many people applaud comic movies as a running success but this simply isn’t true, there were dozens of missteps and failures leading to this point, with films like Batman and Robin (1997), The Fantastic Four (2005), The Hulk (2003) and Captain America (1990) to name just a few!

One argument often overlooked is the success of the loosely inspired adaptations. These are movies which take the original material as a jumping off point but create something new from them, like the surprisingly great 2014 film Edge of Tomorrow which was based on the light manga ‘All you need is Kill’. Similarly the original Matrix film pledges its inspiration to anime movies like AKIRA and Ghost in the Shell while still forming its own story and narrative, just with similar themes and tropes.
While this method is difficult to pull off and does require a talented writer familiar with the sources it may prove the most effective means of bridging the cultural gap.
But what happens when these kind of changes are made on a property that’s attempting, at least by appearances, to emulate its source material? This is a frequent cause of controversy in adaptations that make alterations to elements people believe to be crucial to the source. Often seen in cases of relocating a story to a different country or entire time period, or the dreaded ‘white-washing’ effect.

We’re in an unfortunate time where controversy can be called on even when the adaptation doesn’t overstep itself- simply because a rough history has conditioned us to be especially critical.
Even though the 2017 movie was terrible it should be recognised that Major Mokoto from Ghost in the Shell (the lead heroine) is SUPPOSED to be modelled after an American woman, and a model no less. So all the claims of whitewashing here are actually more knee-jerk reaction than actual outrage. Many sites have reported this ‘race-bending’ (as appears to be the new term) is a major contributor to the movies downfall, but is it really? Granted many examples of re-casting inappropriate actors has wounded similar attempts, like the appalling ethnicity twisting in Last Airbender which saw the Inuit main cast becoming white and the notably pale Japanese antagonists becoming dark skinned Indian and Arabic… even stranger to note Shyamalan as the director is an Indian man himself.

Before I’m bombarded with pitchforks and flaming love-pillows allow me to draw attention to an important factor; even in their native countries adaptations of games and anime are often BAD. Anyone seeking proof need look no further than the 2015 Attack on Titan movie, which flopped with audiences and critics despite the show being at the height of popularity. Similar issues can be seen with the upcoming Full Metal Alchemist movie which many predict will slump into a similar trap as previous pop-anime films. On the other hand there has also been a history of successes with highly-praised movies like Oldboy and Battle Royale seeing large renown internationally despite being based on a manga, with most people completely unaware of their origins. Also the incredibly popular Death Note live-action movies spawning multiple sequels and spin offs that have reached a worldwide audience.

With our collective minds aching from all these different problems its clear to see why we’ve hit so many stumbling points in our pursuit of perfect adaptations. The source material is rarely fitting of a cinematic runtime, we’re stacking writers and directors on works they have no connection to, the Hollywood studio system is poisonous even at the best of times and most importantly we’re attempting to adapt material that has a fundamentally different philosophy than most of the audiences its being re-directed to. Does this swarm of flies in the ointment mean we’ll never see a golden age of nerd cinema?

If comic books are anything to go by what we’re actually seeing is the growing pains of new genres. The failures that will eventually be recognised for what they did wrong not only as a means of critique but also a means of learning. It may take some time before we see our first breakthrough- our Batman Begins or our Ironman- but once that success comes we’ll see every studio holding rights to major anime and videogame properties doing everything in their power to imitate it. We have to remember that, even though our beloved franchises are outside the norm, if something makes money then everyone wants a piece of it. If cinema is a corrupt game of follow-the-money then we’ll leave a trail of silver dollars.

Also; If they dare mess up AKIRA with a badaptation we will riot.

Dragonball after Toriyama | The Strangest Fan Phenomena in All of Anime

“For all the long running jokes and internet hoaxes, Dragonball AF may have decided the entire future of the franchise!”

A lot has changed as we approach the 20’s once again. We have Dragonball, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman…
Okay so very little seems to have changed. Popular culture has cherry picked its favourite media and chiselled it in stone to live alongside us to old age. But that’s not to say these beloved books, movies and shows haven’t had to adapt to serious changes. Many have lost their original creators or undergone overhauls to stay relevant in our fast-paced entertainment world. Many others are on the brink of such considerable change, even if it is approaching so quietly we don’t notice it.

One such show is the long-standing anime saga ‘Dragonball’. From humble comic book beginnings this action series have branched into multiple anime television ventures including original DB, Dragonball Z and Dragonball GT- with its newest venture Dragonball Super being so jaw-droppingly popular it’s topped the anime listings across Japan. Even after a decade without new content the anticipation of Super was so great it’s sent Dragonball into a new golden age of popularity- enough that Son Goku has been announced the cultural mascot for Japans 2020 Olympic games!

But with the continued popularity explosion of Dragonball Super and all its related spin-offs we have to ask ourselves- what happens when Toriyama calls it quits?

Continue reading “Dragonball after Toriyama | The Strangest Fan Phenomena in All of Anime”

3 Comic Strips to Cure the Winter Blues

Today, making use of my extensive collection in Santander, I bring you a selection of comic strips that I particularly enjoy. Unlike comic series, graphic novels or volumes, I like reading comic strips because of their humour. I mean that was the point when they starting coming out as cartoons in the newspapers, to cause an effect with their gags and sketches. The use of sarcasm, the familiarity of the scenes, etc. However, please do not understand this as me reading them lightly or using them as easy reading, or something just to go by. There is a well established tradition in my family of reading these comic strips just as seriously and with the same dedication as any other comic series. My dad is an avid reader and fan of classics such as Dilbert, or Pearls Before Swine, and many others – Calvin and Hobbs being an all time favourite.  However, my selection of today will be something perhaps a bit less familiar, at least in some cases. So here I go:

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The surprising history of ‘Zombies’ ( REAL and FICTION )

 

 

Let me ask you this; have you ever seen a real zombie?
Most of you will say No to such an outlandish question, but what if I told you there are many in history (and even the present) who can actually say they did meet a flesh and blood Walker?

If you are among the living you have probably read or watched a zombie story at some point. Befitting of their infectious nature the undead have infested every corner of popular culture with nowhere to hide! But there’s more to our shambling friends than what we’ve been given in the early twenty first century. What we see now is just the modern interpretation of a creature that has existed in various forms for millennia… but maybe we have more reason to be afraid of it now than we ever did before.

If we jump back as far as possible to where zombies might have first been discussed we’d slip quickly into the realms of mythology, and its rather shocking how many influences probably went into building our modern day Zeds.
The oldest example being the Arabic spirit creature known as a Ghul, or more commonly known as Ghouls today, which were a type of djin (or genie) who inhabited graveyards and were known to consume the flesh of the living! Similar beasts of lore can be found all over the world, with an eerily familiar example being old English ‘Revenants’ which were described as walking corpses that rose from their graves to terrorise the living as far back as the 10th century; probably inspiring the setting for the 1992 classic Evil Dead: Army of Darkness. Also consider the beast known as the Wendigo said to haunt the great lakes region around the US and Canada, described in folklore as a spirit which corrupts human vessels in order to make them commit acts of murder and cannibalism.
So already we have feasting on human flesh, rising from the grave and corrupting living hosts- sounds like a pretty good blueprint for our modern zombie doesn’t it? There’s no denying these ancient tales, along with the more romanticised beasts like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, inspired much of the horror imagery that would later establish the undead. But what about the more true to life inspirations?

To understand where reality may have gotten a little too close to fantasy we need look no further than the 1932 depression era horror ‘White Zombie’, a black and white feature starring Bella Lugosia (of Dracula fame) and yes, this is where Rob Zombie got the name of his band. The movie depicts Lugosi’s mad-eyed mastermind creating a legion of zombies to do his bidding using… what else? Voodoo magic! This was the 30’s after all and America was facing the spectre of cultural integration and all the delightful superstition that comes with it.
But how much of it was based on reality and how much was fearful fantasy? First of all it’s important to know that Haitian faith and many Carribean cultures insist on the existence of magic, both good and evil, and include the stories of dead men being resurrected as killers or slaves. Zombie magic however has never been established as a central part of Haitian practice by their priests (known as Bokors or Houngan). That is however until 1980 when researcher Wade Davis revealed his discovery of a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxi in powder form used by societies of Bokors who would take living people and put them under a ‘curse’ with the powder, in actuality causing significant brain and nerve damage, in some cases rendering them suggestible and of sub-human intelligence. These findings were written by Davis in his book ‘Serpent and the Rainbow’ in which he describes the process and how he came upon its discovery.
Davis’ book and his theories suffered wide criticisms to this day however he remained steadfast in his proposal that Haitian belief in zombie witchcraft was based on the poisoning and mental servitude of Bokor prisoners and this is where the ‘voodoo zombie’ concept originated… something which he claims was real, not myth at all!

Despite this, after White Zombie the undead menace disappeared from the popular culture for decades. Why? Because World War II was raging and almost put horror media as a whole into extinction. It was after the war that a series of events occurred which transformed the ‘zombie’ into a distinctly American cultural product.
It started with a bang as Russia began testing its nuclear weapons in 1949, which began the arms race that defined the decades to come. This sparked a whole new cultural boogeyman; the Atomic fear. Not long afterward the novel ‘I Am Legend’ was published and became the first zombie apocalypse story! While the book set into motion many of the zombie tropes we still see today its undead were much closer related to vampires than any of the ghouls or revenants of the past, being afraid of sunlight and allergic to garlic, even being able to speak.

It wasn’t until 1968 that George Romero stepped up to the task of building all the famous traditions of the zombie mythos in his landmark indie film ‘Night of the Living Dead’. While the various sequels would go on to be bigger commercial successes, with Dawn of the Dead 1978 arguably being the most influential zombie film of all time, the true success of his original masterpiece wasn’t so much the zombies themselves- It was something that made the zombies much more frightening and that’s the human element. Prejudice, distrust, betrayal… all things that are present in these stories and show something even eerier than walking corpses, it shows what people are willing to do to each other when the status quo breaks. What makes this truly horrifying is that we know human beings are capable of doing such terrible things, bringing most of the fear in the scenario out of fiction and landing it square in the realms of reality.

All that said, surely this is where reality must stop? After all as influential as the shamblers are, if we’re honest with ourselves, they don’t really make sense. How would a body move without flow of blood to the muscles and nerves? Why do zombies ignore each other but can always detect human beings? Why would a creature with no need to eat be compelled to gorge on flesh?
Of course the reason behind this is simple; because zombies are a work of fiction. At least most people are convinced this is the case- but there are more cases of real life ‘zombies’ than those previously mentioned from history. Many exist right at this moment, just not in the form you’d expect.

Let me introduce you to something called ‘Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis’, a fungus discovered all the way back in 1859. This parasitic lifeform is known to infect a huge variety of insects and turns them into very real zombies. Infecting the brain and altering their behaviour the fungus will often compel the host to remove itself from the nest and into a higher elevation- growing unpleasant protrusions from the victim’s body until the host becomes entirely consumed by it. The fungus will then dispel its spores down on the rest of the nest, effectively transmitting itself through an entire population, or leave the host in such a vulnerable spot to be consumed by larger predators (including birds or sheep). The reason behind this secondary behaviour is still uncertain, though the fungus can and often does continue to exist inside the predator’s body.

It’s rather unsettling to consider parasites have evolved to have such abilities over other lifeforms, creating a very real zombie disease. You might wonder, could such a thing ever affect humans? And are we doing anything about it?

Actually, the answer is yes. Two of the most powerful control bodies in America, the Centre of Disease Control (CDC) and the US Pentagon itself have released reports on what to do in the case of a zombie apocalypse, including a full military training protocol outlined in Pentagon paper CONOP 8888 of the U.S. Strategic Command.  In case you were curious, this official pentagon paper for prepping world-leading military personnel has an image of a shambling undead persons on the front cover. It’s everything you might have imagined.
The paper includes a disclaimer which explains the plan is NOT a joke, however it also shouldn’t be taken at face value. As it happens the hyperbole involved in an ‘end of the world zombie outbreak’ was just outlandish enough, but also tactically conceivable enough, that it provided military planners with excellent practice in critical analysis. For this reason the plan was fleshed out to a complete official paper and is still used for training purposes today.

Reading this you might be thinking that zombies are as old as dirt and form part of the background noise of popular culture. While that might be true I want us to understand that we’re living in the ‘Zombie Generation’, where not only is our media saturated with undeath but the genre has a creepy familiarity with our everyday lives. Why? Possibly because we’re not a communal species anymore.

When it comes to zombies both the satisfying elements and the terrifying ones come from the same place- we ARE them. The undead are just human beings who no longer have their capacity to reason. We can harm them and they will harm us and morality plays no part in it. In their best forms zombies are used as commentary, ranging from the brainwashed human condition to the inhuman extent of our treatment to each other- this is why zombie media has exploded in the USA, where cultural consumerism and the plight of the individual vs the masses are bigger concerns than ever.
As Romero once said the undead represent some kind of “global change” which could reflect any of our modern societal fears, because regardless of what the fear itself is caused by the human animal responds to fear in the usual way- by banding together or breaking apart through blame and cowardice.

Instead of fearing whether the undead will truly rise from their graves to eat us, perhaps we should be more concerned that as a society we’re relating each other more and more with the faceless horde with every passing year.

Superman is still a Hero – What we’ve forgotten about comic book supers?

 

If I told you superhero movies were big in Hollywood right now, would you be surprised?

 

 

I’m guessing no. What with FOURTNEEN currently released Marvel Universe films out, several television and streaming series between the major publishers and DC starting their own cinematic universe… silver screen heroes are pretty huge right now. In fact you might say they’re the biggest thing to hit Hollywood since the romantic comedy.

So why then do I feel unfulfilled in my comic nerdery? Why in the face of the lame-duck Man of Steel and Batman v Superman movies am I still willing to stand on my soap box and say Superman is still worth believing in? That’s because a nagging voice in my head, possibly a symbiote, tells me people have forgotten something important about our golden heroes.

I think we’ve forgotten what super heroes were supposed to be about.

It’s impossible to miss the marketing juggernaut the superhero genre has become over the last decade and plans are already in place to capitalise a dozen more popular names in 2017. As such we’re seeing some of the best stories in the medium rolled out pretty quickly, often without the pacing they deserve. But are these classic tales of heroes facing monsters really what made the Golden Age of comics a landmark? Most of the stories we see adapted to film, from Captain America going AWOL to Death of Superman, are lifted from the later (often called Silver Age) of comic books in which flashy stories and big twists were all the rage to keep the medium interesting.
Take a moment to look past these flashy title-grabbers with me and look at what really went into making these heroes, and why they became so popular to span upwards of eight decades; Almost an entire century in popular culture!

If we need a case study in how perceptions have changed for comic leads take a look at our mutant brethren in The X-Men. As a 1960’s publication by Stan Lee the story of societal outcasts banding together and fighting for social justice, pulled apart by two polarising leaders with different ideals, should strike a chord for anyone with basic knowledge of Civil Rights in the USA. The divide between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fuelled much conflict in an already volatile social situation, with the black population of the States struggling to find acceptance in a world that classed them as ‘different’ and therefore bad. These struggles are paralleled in comic form and work as a brilliant mirror for the state of culture at the time – both the good and the bad.
Knowing this it won’t shock you to learn many superheroes were a reflection of their time period, but what if I told you some heroes actually managed to affect the real world as much as the real world affected them?

Let me tell you a little story about when superheroes were about Hope. Not ‘saving the world from disaster’ kind of hope, but the more human experience that so many people are looking for every day. Let me take you back to the 1940’s, Europe was torn apart by war and the United States- at the time heart of the blossoming comic book industry- was entering armed conflict abroad. Let me introduce you to a little someone called; Batman.

This period is still known today as the ‘Golden Age’ of comic books. The medium was fresh and captivating for young audiences who didn’t have many other outlets. It was literature for the youth at a time where stories of adventure and heroism weren’t as easy to come by. Most think-pieces on the period dive into how comic books (and various other mediums) tried to sell kids on the idea of romantic battlefield adventure, often tied in with ads for War Bonds and the American Red Cross. That was more the fault of the market and comics authority however, not the impact of the characters and their stories. Instead I want you to ask yourself something… Why did Batman need a Robin?

There have been decades of comic fans berating the inclusion of the Boy Wonder and fighting for a more independent and less child friendly Bat. Some of you might consider yourself among this number, but consider this, Batman first hit shelves under the Detective Comics title in 1939. His junior sidekick Robin would later join his adventures in 1940. Just one year later!
It doesn’t take much research to find out why, and the truth is actually quite heart-breaking. As the forties rolled in America sank into the war and a time of loss and sadness gripped the real world. Even prior to ’41 so many people in the States were refugees or had familial ties to the conflict, it couldn’t be escaped. One consistency among thousands of young people at the time was simply not having a father figure- whether they were serving abroad or tragically one of the considerable human losses of war. The lack of paternal role models was at pandemic proportions and it was down to Batman, and numerous other funny book heroes besides, to fill that place in children’s lives.
Robin entered at the beginning of America’s war and acted as a self-insert for young readers; getting to be a part in the thrilling adventures of their heroes, beating bad guys and learning important life lessons with each issue. The Boy Wonder was at his peak during these years and notably hit a similar resurgence around the time of the Korean and Vietnam wars. These were times when children needed something more than just adventure stories. They needed a hero in their lives.

Other franchises didn’t adapt to the times but were instead created by them. They are a time capsule of comic writers trying to communicate a message to their impressionable readers- and none more prevalent than Captain America.  Hitting shelves a year after Batman this hero was built from virtues the writers wished to personify about their country. He fights for Truth, Justice and Freedom. Not due to his character, but because everything from his title to his costume to his demeanour was supposed to make children think of America.
This was a powerful tool in the early Captain America comics and an intentional design choice to enforce just how brave and just the war against Axis powers really was to a young and- important to remember- not well informed audience. This was a time period before reporters and camera crews were littering battlefields across the world so the only exposure young people got to the war proper was the propaganda reels in their movie theatres, paper headlines that were strictly controlled for information security reasons, and of course… comic books. Remember that issue of Captain America punching Adolf Hitler (Issue #1, 1940)? This was the first time many kids would have seen what the German Fuhrer even looked like. Mostly because this issue hit shelves an entire year before the United States even entered the Second World War… !

We can see that many comic characters were created as more than just proxies for fighting baddies and having daring adventures. The most timeless of them were created to be something more.
Why then do I still insist that Superman may actually be the greatest of super heroes?

Let’s start by looking at where the ‘Big Blue Boy-Scout’ came from.
As the earliest super hero in the medium Superman was created in 1933 during a climate of fear and oppression around the world- crafted by the offspring of two Jewish refugee families, Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster. His is the story of extraordinary people forced out of their home and making a life in a strange and often hostile place, people who have strength and potential that often gets overlooked or misunderstood. It’s a perfect ‘outsider’ story from the creative children of immigrant families who fled out of Europe. Many people also insist on relations to the Moses story, of a baby being sent down the Nile to safety; however it’s essential to spot the differences between them. Moses was sent away by innocent peasants and raised by the powerful elite. This is the exact opposite situation to Superman’s tale and recognising that brings us to possibly the most important thing about him…

Superman is the equal of a deity raised by humble peasant folk. The most impossibly powerful man in all the world, yes, but one who’s humanity is his greatest strength.

People have forgotten where Superman’s conflict really lies. It was never about how strong he was, as it was always assumed he was mighty enough to ‘beat’ any enemy, because overcoming villains was never his conflict. Never his deeper story. Superman is the question of what happens if God tried to be mortal. What struggles would he face? What need of morality?
You can tie this in to the very real world fear and prejudice of the time it was created, standing in direct contrast to what Superman as a character was supposed to stand for. We need to consider this hero was written not only as a being of absolute strength but also of absolute Good. Flawed heroes like Wolverine or Batman are easier to humanise because they have more layers to work with, but how do you humanise something that’s better than human?

The greatest advantage of Superman’s premise is also what many perceive as his biggest drawback. He is, by design, flat-out better than anyone else. He’s ‘Super’- as the name suggests. But not because he was trained in advanced krypton ideologies before coming to earth. He wasn’t developed  by top government men like so many titular heroes nowadays. He was a baby found and raised by Ma and Pa Kent, two clean living country bumpkins. This is what makes him more than just the circumstances of his time period. Superman doesn’t exist to protect us from a looming threat of his generation- he was a symbol that people can be better. That there is always a chance to be better. It’s crucial to what makes Superman the character he is, raised on the best lessons and morals that we as a society believe in.  He was taught about hard work, loyalty and selflessness. That makes a fascinating character when you consider this child could have destroyed planets before hitting puberty.

Over the 80 years of publication there have been many climactic battles, but just as many smaller moments that need to be addressed. A perfect example is 2006 All-Star Superman, in which the man of steel comes to the aid of a young girl on the brink of suicide.  No fighting, no super abilities, just the promise of a better tomorrow from a symbol of hope.
The real wonder of this? This story and many others like it have become recurring symbols for World Suicide Prevention Day, with many reports of people finding strength in these fictional tales and helping bring them back from the edge- real life people, not just those on the ink. This shows that the heart of what made the Golden Age of comics so lasting is still alive today, heroes having a real impact on people’s lives.

So perhaps the magic isn’t entirely lost to history. But I think it’s important that people remember just what made superheroes so beloved to begin with, all those years ago. It wasn’t just about what happened on paper but also how these characters reflected and even changed the lives of real people.

You might argue some of these ideals are lost in the modern world. That superheroes aren’t supposed to be about inspiring the audiences, merely entertaining them. That Batman or Ironman don’t need to teach or convey anything, merely distract from the real world. I for one don’t believe it’s too late. People might say Superman is too corny for cinema now. They might say that Batman doesn’t need a Robin.

But that’s the beauty of real Superheroes. Even if we turn our backs on them today- they’ll be there for us when we need them the most.